Donald Trump’s Tense History With Hollywood Comes Full Circle

Donald Trump

Antonio Sabato Jr. is one of the few actors in the entertainment business who “felt great” at the close of Election Day. A passionate supporter of Donald Trump, for whom he stumped at the Republican National Convention last summer, Sabato Jr. was elated that his candidate had won. Trump may not have too many other backers in the industry, but as the former star of NBC’s “The Apprentice,” he owes Hollywood a large debt for his celebrity status.

“Throughout the election, some people talked about it the other way — that his role in Hollywood and his persona was actually damaging to him,” Sabato Jr. says. “But I think what makes him special as a person is he loves his country more than anything. He wants to do what’s right for this country. Hollywood is a small part of the United States.”

Trump is the second American president, after Ronald Reagan, who comes to the White House with a long list of onscreen credits, from cameos in movies like “Home Alone 2: Lost in New York” and “Zoolander” to TV shows like “Monk” and “Sex and the City.” But unlike Reagan, Trump was never a professional actor. His profile rose to new heights when he started playing a version of himself — a ruthless, decisive mogul — on Mark Burnett’s 2004 reality series “The Apprentice.” The popularity of those dramatic boardroom scenes and his catchphrase “You’re fired!” are part of what helped him pack stadiums with throngs of adoring fans on the campaign trail.

Even as he became an NBC superstar, though, Trump was never truly embraced by Hollywood; indeed, he was long satirized by the likes of David Letterman and on shows like “The Simpsons.” That tension — of a man whose fame was in part created by Hollywood but was never a member of the club — could hint at what’s to come during his presidency: Whereas President Obama frequently entertained A-list actors, Trump bemoaned the lack of celebrity endorsements he received over the past six months.

His surprise Election Day victory was a gut punch to many stars, from Chelsea Handler (who teared up on her Netflix show) to Lady Gaga, Cher, Lena Dunham, Shonda Rhimes, Judd Apatow, Chris Evans, Ryan Reynolds, and Seth Meyers. Stephen Colbert looked ashen during his live election special, as the results trickled in for Trump. But the outcry wasn’t limited to TV and social media: A surge of anger and fear quickly gripped the industry at large.

“I can’t think of any presidential candidate who is less qualified to lead a nation in some very difficult times,” says veteran movie producer Mike Medavoy. Adds Paul Hanson, CEO of Covert Media, “We’re in the seven stages of grief. The anxiety is starting to kick in.”

During the George W. Bush years, Hollywood broadcast its distaste for the president loud and clear. Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” became the highest grossing documentary of all time, earning $119 million at the domestic box office. As the Iraq War and waterboarding dominated the news, the Oscars started to award dark dramas such as “The Departed” and “No Country for Old Men,” as opposed to uplifting fare like “Slumdog Millionaire,” the first best-picture winner in the Obama years. On TV, “24” dramatized the war on terror, while “American Idol” had the country reliving voting scandals — minus the hanging chads — on a weekly basis.

Alex Fine for Variety

“Whoever is president impacts what the culture is talking about, and that impacts the themes and stories that films deal with,” says longtime producer and studio executive Joe Pichirallo, chair of the Dept. of Undergraduate Film & Television at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.

Beyond the art that could be produced as a result of opposition to his administration, Trump offers a new set of business-related questions for the industry. His immigration policies will potentially be the most restrictive in generations. That could create headaches for studios that rely on foreign talent, both in front of and behind the camera, if it becomes harder to secure visas. It could also generate issues for companies looking to shoot projects abroad, as it may spark a wave of anti-American sentiment.

Hollywood’s economic fortunes will be inextricably linked to Trump’s presidency. The president-elect made tough talk with China and foreign powers a central plank of his candidacy. If enacted, stricter trade measures could have far-reaching repercussions for a business that is increasingly globalized. China is the world’s second-largest film market — on its way to being No. 1 — and is a vital center for box office revenues and investment. If Trump is serious about going after the Middle Kingdom for what he has charged is currency manipulation, it could result in Chinese authorities cracking down on joint ventures with American companies and other business partnerships.

“A Trump presidency will likely lead to a more heated relationship with China,” suggests Aynne Kokas, a professor of media studies at the University of Virginia. “His rhetoric could generate anti-Americanism that could affect box office sales, new theme-park investments, and even the quota for film imports.”

What has Hollywood most worried is the possibility that China could use Trump’s angry rhetoric to justify limiting the number of foreign films it allows to screen annually. Currently, the country permits 34 imported movies to show in its theaters each year, the bulk of them major studio offerings. But those regulations are being renegotiated and are set to change in 2017.

“A Trump presidency will likely lead to a more heated relationship with China. His rhetoric could generate anti-Americanism that could affect box office sales, new theme-park investments, and even the quota for film imports.”
Aynne Kokas, University of Virginia

But others point out that Trump’s words and actions haven’t always lined up, and he may not hurt Hollywood’s international bottom line.

“Bill Clinton made a number of protectionist statements when he was campaigning, and he ended up being one of the biggest free-trade advocates,” says Lindsay Conner, chair of the media and entertainment group at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips. “Everyone should settle down and see what the next few months bring.”

Actor Jon Voight, a Trump supporter, came to his defense, too. “I know some people are heartsick, because I was heartsick when Mitt Romney lost — so I know the feeling,” Voight tells Variety. “But I say give this fellow a chance, because you’re going to find out he’s going to be a very good president.”

Industry players are hoping Trump’s picks for administration jobs will signal a willingness to foster engagement in a global economy instead of augmenting some of his isolationist stances.

“That would go a long way toward calming fears,” says Ashok Amritraj, producer of “99 Homes” and “The Boondock Saints.” “Our business partners around the world have such a sense of uncertainty.”

One area in which Trump may actually help the entertainment industry is in TV ratings. Cable news — particularly CNN and Fox News — saw a dramatic rise in viewership, and tens of millions of dollars in ad revenue, as a result of America’s first “reality show” presidential campaign. Depending on what Trump’s first 100 days in office look like, tawdry headlines could continue to keep the 24-hour news cycle spinning. And each new Trump controversy will feed news organizations like The Huffington Post and People, the latter of which is already drawing criticism for a recent, fluffy cover story celebrating the 45th president-elect and his family.

Over the next four years, there may not be too many Hollywood gatherings at the White House. Count on a less star-studded Correspondents Dinner next spring — given that Trump’s roster of celebrity supporters is limited to the likes of Voight and Scott Baio — and an Inauguration Day void of pop music stars. And state dinners will no longer be a status symbol among the entertainment elite.

Yet others may rally to his side. Sabato Jr. is one actor willing to step up for the new administration — he says he would like to help promote physical education like Arnold Schwarzenegger did for George H.W. Bush.

“I think it’s important to bring more fitness to schools,” he notes. “I look forward to going to the White House. I’ll be there with open arms.”